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PSM and Petroleum Refineries: Lessons Learned (Part 2)

In this second installment of our series on “Lessons Learned” in the last ten years of the Petroleum Refinery Process Safety Management National Emphasis Program, I would like to talk about the requirement that a PSM-covered employer conduct a Process Safety Analysis (“PHA”). For our readers who are general human resources practitioners or general counsel, a PHA is an organized and systematic effort to identify and analyze the significance of potential hazards associated with a company’s processes that involve the handling of highly hazardous chemicals. 

The challenge with PHAs is that there is not a single way — or methodology — to conduct one. A good PHA requires a good PHA team that includes folks with knowledge about process design — including how different processes work together, operating procedures, and emergency procedures. Additionally, a PHA team should include persons who are able to think analytically and are able to brainstorm about potential causes and consequences of fires, explosions or releases.

Because there is not one single way to conduct a PHA, OSHA inspectors have generally deferred to the company’s decision with respect to the methodology used for conducting an evaluation. However, OSHA inspectors have closely scrutinized whether companies have promptly addressed the findings and recommendations of their PHAs. In fact, failure to establish a system that ensures PHA recommendations have been promptly resolved is one of the most common reasons for OSHA issuing citations.

Additionally, while they may not second guess an employer’s identification of the hazards of a process or the evaluation of engineering and administrative controls, many OSHA inspectors have cited companies because they did not feel that the company conducted an adequate facility siting analysis as part of its PHA because the company failed to evaluate various locations at the site. To a large extent, this may be driven by the fact that an inspector may not have to have much knowledge about the processes in order to determine that a particular building — say a temporary structure or a break room — has not been evaluated.

Because OSHA inspectors usually do not have the same depth of knowledge on the particular process involved in a PHA as the operator itself, taking steps to show the thoroughness and completeness of the process can sometimes make all the difference in whether your PHA is citation free or you are dinged for failure to address a recommendation or to properly evaluate facility siting.

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.